Depending on when you drop in, you could find one of the owners of LOLA recharging in their office’s nap space, an elevated nook complete with an extra large bean bag chair and a calming view of Lisbon’s 25 de Abril Bridge and the water. It was a necessary addition for architects Rute Brazão and Sandra Ribeiro, who literally work around-the-clock, time zones be damned, as the owners of a firm currently completing projects in Portugal, Italy, and Brazil–with only themselves to manage it all.
If you believe most media reports, it would seem like the very worst moment to be a small business owner in economically hard hit Portugal. Yet in 2011, when Brazão and Ribeiro decided to open a Lisbon branch for the company they’d started in Barcelona, they already had a strong foundation. LOLA (an acronym for Local Office Large Architecture) started in Spain in 2004, during that country’s brief economic boom. It was ideal timing and, along with a third partner who has since left the firm, they began entering competitions to get clients, picking up a few small projects–and working out of their shared apartment’s living room. “We were young architects with creative disquietude and a strong will to transform [spaces] and communicate ideas,” says Brazão, who met Ribeiro in college and re-connected with her in Spain.
An early project, a house in Saudi Arabia, was a turning point, as it meant setting up a structure that continues to define LOLA as an international firm where one of the partners is often collecting frequent flier miles to attend client meetings and site inspections. It also required building a network of global subcontractors for support and assistance that they still rely upon today. The Saudi Arabia house was soon followed by an eco-tourism resort in Otranto, Italy, and provided the resources for a few upgrades, including a dedicated office space, moving LOLA out of the living room and into its own loft.
It may seem that one of the firm’s key assets is that the partners speak a combined five languages (Portuguese, English, Italian, Catalan, and Spanish), making it simpler to network and attract an international clientele, many of whom come from word-of-mouth referrals. Yet their greatest skill is actually their capacity to problem solve creatively. A fashion retail store in Italy was built into an 18th-century building that had been a private residence and that included rooms with ceilings so low it threatened to make a high-end shopping experience claustrophobic. They built in reflective, mirrored surfaces and strategically used color to give the impression of an expanded space. A current job, the reconstruction of a building in Lisbon’s historic center, meant figuring how to retain the beauty of the original façade while infusing it with something modern and innovative. “It has been very challenging, so we have done deep research into Portuguese interior design details from the beginning of the century to understand how to do a reinvention of them,” says Brazão, adding that since the building lacked even two corners that shared an identical look, it has been a “sewing” or patchwork approach to architecture and design. “We try to find an identity [in each project] and make it part of a coherent and integrated thinking. Each project is quite different and part of the beauty is to be a bit free.”
For now, the women have chosen to remain small and add consultants when projects require more hands. “The group and the kind of collaboration grows according to each project’s needs and where it is located,” says Brazao. In addition, they have taken on two Lisbon-based trainees. They seek to weather the Eurozone’s financial troubles by bringing in as many different currencies as possible. “We are constantly creating new collaborations with other studios or people from different areas,” says Brazao. They are also separating as Brazao prepares to head off to Milan in the spring for an extended period to see through the completion of a nearby lakeside villa, meaning Ribeiro will have the nap nook to herself as she becomes the daily head of the Lisbon office and manages completion of a cosmetic store that will open in September in Sao Paola, Brazil.
Are they worried what it will mean that LOLA will no longer be a local office? Not at all, says Brazao, explaining, “Lisbon was the place where we grew, part of our roots. But what is really important is to get inspired by life, by the traffic and nature, noises and silence, cinema, music, literature…It’s a question of culture!”